Top 10 festivals map & highlights

The most exciting, unusual festivals tend to take place in the most exotic and remote locations. Not surprisingly, getting to the festival site can involve a day or two of travel once in the host country. Travel is typically by road, sometimes on decent roads, sometimes across open steppe or dry desert, but the effort of getting there is rewarded with a religious, cultural or sporting spectacle the like of which you won’t find closer to home. An organised tour will take care of travel logistics, any supplies or camping equipment needed, accommodation or entry passes – you just have to sit back and enjoy the show.
Day of the Dead, Mexico

1. Day of the Dead, Mexico

The sugar skulls and smoking skeletons of Mexico’s Day of the Dead might have made their way into our Halloween celebrations, but they’re but a shadow on the real Dia de los Muertos. This three-day festival honours dead ancestors with a heady mix of sombre, smoky wakes and festive feasts where the dead – and you – are welcomed to the family table.
Gerewol, Chad

2. Gerewol, Chad

A beauty pageant in which the men apply makeup and fine robes, before performing enigmatic dances to attract a new wife – or a well earned one night stand – Gerewol in Chad is the annual and ancient courtship festival staged by the Wodaabe people of the Sahel. It’s remote, rarely seen and a revealing peek into the deep traditions of Saharan Africa.
Harbin Ice & Snow Festival, China

3. Harbin Ice & Snow Festival, China

Following the ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ logic, this festival makes the most of the freezing winter weather in northeastern China. Talented snow sculptors and ice carvers descend to create buildings, animals, lanterns and even a Ferris wheel from frozen chunks of the Songhua River. Wrap up warm and explore by day and night, when lights illuminate the ice from within.
Nadaam & Eagle Festivals, Mongolia

4. Nadaam & Eagle Festivals, Mongolia

Mongolia celebrates the ‘three games of men’ – archery, horse racing and wrestling – that made Genghis Khan’s nation so feared in its annual Nadaam. It’s a few days of sport and socialising in July that’s central to Mongolian life. In the far west, visit the eagle festivals that have been gaining popularity here, to witness the Kazakh people hunting the ancient way – with a trained golden eagle.
Uchal Festival, Pakistan

5. Uchal Festival, Pakistan

Held in the bewitching beautiful Kalash Valley, the Uchal Festival in August celebrates the harvest, and is one of Pakistan’s most important cultural get-togethers. Expect lots of traditional song and dance, not to mention lashings of dairy produce, as you drop in on a tour of the country’s remote mountainous regions. Sports more your thing? Take the same trip in June to catch the Shandur Polo Festival instead.
Rio Carnival, Brazil

6. Rio Carnival, Brazil

Fancy seeing Rio de Janeiro at its most colourful? Then you’ve got to go at carnival time with a tour operator that can book you into the best events. You’ll shake it with the samba dancers in the streets, squeeze into a neighbourhood blocas party, admire the floats parading down the Sambadrome, and salute the sunset with caipirinha. Sleep can wait.
Timkat Festival, Ethiopia

7. Timkat Festival, Ethiopia

The Timkat Festival is an Epiphany like no other. Celebrating the baptism of Jesus, the day kicks off with a pilgrimage down to blessed springs. That’s where you’ll find the Talbot – a replica of the Arc – which gets paraded back to church against an ecstatic soundtrack of song and dance. It’s the churchgoers who make the festival, with their elaborate robes and jewel-bright umbrellas.
Tshechus, Bhutan

8. Tshechus, Bhutan

Bhutan does festivals (tshechus) like no other nation, with one taking place somewhere in the country every month, typically on the tenth day. Most happen in the grounds of monasteries or Buddhist learning centers and celebrate the introduction of Buddhism to the country in the 8th century. Monks dance, leap through burning arches and impart blessings, while families watch, picnic and become a little more enlightened.
Voodoo festival, Benin

9. Voodoo festival, Benin

Benin is the birthplace of voodoo, a West African religion which believes various spirits and divine essences govern the earth. At the annual Voodoo Festival in January, local churches travel to Ouidah on the coast to perform in fantastic costumes, dancing to incessant drum beats in a trance-like state. You’ll see fetishes and the odd animal sacrifice, too – all part of this incredible event.
World Nomad Games, Kyrgyzstan

10. World Nomad Games, Kyrgyzstan

The World Nomad Games is a new event on the global festival scene; a bigger and beefier alternative to the Olympics, which takes place every two years. Nomads from across Central Asia and beyond gather for traditional sports – from every kind of regional wrestling to the infamous headless goat polo – plus the chance to feast, socialise, wear traditional dress and enjoy a pinch of proud patriotism.
Travel Team
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Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Arian Zwegers] [Bhutan masked performer: Arian Zwegers] [Day of the Dead: nmarritz] [Gerewol Chad: Native Eye Travel] [Harbin Ice festival: Brian Jeffery Beggerly] [Nadaam and Eagle festivals: Bernd Taller] [Uchal Festival, Pakistan: KamalZain] [Rio Carnival: Kimsey Grace] [Timkat: gill_penney] [Tschechus Bhutan: Arian Zwegers] [Voodoo festival: Native Eye Travel] [World Nomad Games: Save the dream]